By the time most people reach young adulthood, even if they’re not in a committed relationship, they’re generally expected to know what kind of person they want to be with, that is, the gender of an ideal mate. Sexual orientation is widely assumed to be fixed after a certain point in early life development. But for years psychologist Lisa Diamond has been challenging that notion, and through her research offers a radical new understanding of sexual orientation, arguing that it’s much more fluid than previously believed.
This episode was produced in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature, an organization that brings together scholars from a diversity of disciplines to think creatively about our relationships with nature and each other. What do you think evolution can tell us about love and morality? Share your thoughts at humansandnature.org. This episode was made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.
Anne Strainchamps: And, usually by the time you get to your teenage years, you have a pretty good idea, maybe not of who you're going to fall for, but at least what gender. A few people are bisexual, but pretty much we identify as gay or straight. But psychologist LD says that, in fact, most of us are a whole lot less fixed than we think. And the title of her book says it all, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. Welcome with me please, LD. Hey, Lisa, thank you so much for being here.
Lisa Diamond: It's a pleasure. Well, I want to correct something that you said. You said a few people are bisexual, but most folks are gay or straight. That's what most of us used to think because we didn't have very good data, but now we have a number of large, random, representative surveys that have been done on people's sexual attractions, and actually bisexual patterns of attraction are far more common than exclusively gay or lesbian patterns of attraction.
AS: Oh, you just cut to the chase entirely. So there you go, we're done.
LD: The heterosexuals are still winning, but it's heterosexuals first and then the bisexuals, and then the exclusive gays and lesbians.
AS: OK, so, backup and let's figure out how you got to that point. So, 20 years ago, now, right, you started doing this big survey and you should explain this, but you were looking at non-heterosexual women and their sexual orientation, sex lives, desire.
LD: Yeah, at the time I started the study, it was the early 90s. Most of the research on sexual identity development in young people was done on samples of men. So we ended up producing a whole science of men because it was easier to find them. So when I started graduate school, I was like, 'well, you know, I'm a lesbian and a feminist. I'm going to study women!' you know. So I didn't quite know what I was looking for, but I knew I wanted to follow women over time. And, what I found was that, as I tracked women's sexual attractions and sexual identities over time, regardless of where they started, whether they were lesbian, or bisexual, or some of the women were like, 'well, I don't know what I am, but I'm somewhere,' there was a lot of movement. As time went on, some of the women who started out as lesbian ended up falling in love with their male best friends and getting involved with them. Some of the women who were predominantly bisexual then ended up switching to be exclusively lesbian. And I just found that there was a lot more flexibility in women's sexuality than most of the literature at that time had suggested.
AS: So were you surprised?
LD: I was very surprised, and, initially, I thought, 'well, you know, they're still young. Give them a few more years and everyone will settle down.' And yet, I found that the longer I followed them, the more women started to change, so that, by the time I reached the 10 year point, and now I'm at the 20 year point, change is substantially more common than stability.
AS: So how do you explain this? Because it goes against everything we're taught, and everything we think. We think that we're supposed to settle into a sexual identity, 'I'm only attracted to men' or 'only to women.'
LD: And I think that's because most of the other research tended to look at people at one point in time. And if you capture anyone at one point in time, they may feel pretty certain that where they are is where they are, right. And so if they're, you know, heterosexual they're like, 'well, I'm heterosexual that's who I am.' The trick comes when you let their lives unfold. And most of our lives are a lot more complex than we think. And it looks like our human species just has a lot more capacity for fluidity and for plasticity than most of us imagine.
AS: So, I have to ask, was there a personal component for you of starting to do this research, I mean, you came out, what, in your college years?
LD: I came out in my college years, and there wasn't so much of a personal component. I certainly wasn't looking for sexual fluidity. I was just a garden variety lesbian, when I started doing this research, a good plain old boring lesbian.
AS: And did the research inspire you to become more interesting?
LD: Well, you know, unfortunately it hasn't. And sometimes I feel bad because I've been asked to speak to a lot of bisexual organizations, because I've been a big advocate for more research on bisexuality, because it is just so much more common then exclusive same-sex sexuality. And often I feel a need to confess to the organizers like, 'I'm actually a lesbian. I'm sorry. I'm like the greatest champion of bisexuals that you can find, but I'm not a bisexual.' And they're like, 'it's OK, you know, we need the lesbians to stand up for us.'
AS: The story you're telling--I mean you don't know, right?
LD: Oh, exactly, I should be the first person to say, 'I'm a lesbian now, who the hell knows.' But, you know, I've also been married to the same woman for 22 years.
AS: So we were talking about women. What about men? Is the same thing true? Are men as sexually fluid as women?
LD: I used to think that women were much more fluid than men. And my thoughts on that have really started to change. I started to do more research on men and I did a study, you know, in Salt Lake City where you would think the men would be pretty rigid. And I found a really surprising degree of fluidity in men's attractions, as well, gay-identified men reporting that they frequently masturbate to fantasies of women, and the straight-identified men saying that they, you know, had some sort of oral sex with a man in the past 12 months. Even in men, I think the boundaries aren't as rigid as they used to be. I think one of the reasons it looks like it's more common in women is that I think we give women in our culture more permission to be affectionate with other women, to have close relationships with other women, that might spill over into unusual affection. And I think we have been more rigid with men, that, you know, men have to be men, and if men are going to have close emotional relationships, they're going to be with women, and not with other men. But some of those norms are changing, and I think men have more permission, now, to, you know, explore intimacy in a variety of ways, with both male and female friends. So I think we'll find out in like another 10, 15 years, you know, how how much fluidity differs between women and men, maybe the culture will have caught up for men, as well as women.
AS: Have you translated any of this into figures? Like if you had to guess what percentage of the general population would be fluid?
LD: I get that question a lot and it's hard to know. One thing we do know, is that, we have good nationally representative data on just the percentage of individuals who report any degree of same sex attraction, at all, and the most recent data on that suggests that about 14 percent of women and about 10 percent of men report some degree of same-sex attraction. And in both women and men, the vast majority of those individuals describe themselves as mostly, but not completely, heterosexual. So the largest group of individuals walking around with same sex attractions are individuals who you would never know had same-sex attractions. They identify as heterosexual. They think they're mainly heterosexual, but they're, like, hetero-flexible. So they're the majority of individuals with same-sex attractions, and yet, historically, they've been completely invisible. We only now are starting to see what a big group they are. And they're not just a big group in the U.S. You find the same thing if you look at Great Britain, France, the Netherlands. The hetero-flexibles are like this huge looming population.
AS: Does this change anything about what we think about, what we know about, the nature of desire? Why, or how, we fall in love with the people we fall in love with?
LD: I think it just shows us that, as a species, flexibility is our hallmark. There are a lot of animal species in which the process of selecting a mate and going about sex is very rigidly channeled. In some species, it only happens when you're capable of reproducing. One of the things about humans, with our huge brains, and our huge social systems, is that we go about the process of affiliation, and attachment, and bonding, and sex, in really complex social ways. And we use sexuality for purposes of affiliation. And we use affiliation for the purposes of mating. That there are sort of cross-currents between love, and attachment, and friendship, and sexuality that are a lot more complicated than they are in other species, because of our social groups, and because of our huge social brains, therefore, we should expect that these are flexible processes that we can tweak in a number of ways.
AS: But I thought that the whole purpose in evolution, the purpose of sex and love, really is to reproduce?
LD: And we do that very successfully. But not only do we need to reproduce, but we also need to care for our children. Some scholars have suggested that the fact that humans, often, historically, have relied on other adults in the social group to help care for our children makes it really really important to have intimate, close, trusting bonds with other individuals in your social network. Some have suggested that sexual fluidity might serve that purpose. Now, I'm not sure whether the best way to get your neighbor to help care for your kids is to have sex with your neighbor, but, you know, maybe.
AS: That's one way to pay for babysitting.
LD: But, again, the idea is that our lives are complex enough that it's not just a matter of meet, have sex, spit the kid out, but that that we have always reproduced in a large social context, in which our relations with other members of the social group are a key part of our reproductive success.
AS: One last question, we haven't talked about the politics of this, but it strikes me that there would be some interesting political implications, because if you're saying that, 'nope, sorry, it's not just 'you were born that way,' any of us could be that way,' what does that do for civil rights?
LD: This is a huge issue, and, in fact, there were a friend of the court briefs filed in the same sex marriage cases, by individuals opposed to same sex marriage, that actually cited my own work as evidence that, you know, LGBT individuals didn't constitute a discrete group that warranted equal protection status because sexuality was so fluid. So no one was being discriminatory.
AS: How do you feel about that?
LD: I was rather distressed by it, as you might imagine. And I had the chance to, you know, file briefs saying that I disagreed with that point of view. But, when it came down to it, the sordid fixedness, the immutability of sexual orientation, this notion that, 'oh, we deserve these rights because we're born this way,' that has actually not played really any significant role in any of the judicial rulings on the rights of LGBT individuals. For quite some time, Courts have basically said, it's not the immutability of a trait that matters, it's whether laws forbidding certain conduct are motivated by hatred or animus. And so, we really don't need to argue that we're born a certain way, and that we're fixed, and that we're, you know, permanently channeled, in order to advocate for civil rights. And, what I've always said to this is, it doesn't matter how or why you came to want to have sex with a certain type of person, or marry them. Either we're a society that protects your sexual freedom, and your liberty to choose your marital partner, or we're not, and you have to make the decision on that basis.